29 May, 2006

Historians turned novelists, and new simile competition

BBC Radio 4’s Open Book programme on Sunday May 14 featured an interview with Alison Weir and Jason Goodwin, both of whom are established writers of historical non-fiction who have recently published historical novels. The programme is available on Listen Again, and the interview starts about 20 minutes into the programme.

The interview featured the usual disparaging comments about historical fiction, the gist of which (though not the wording) amounted to, "What's a nice historian like you doing in a genre like this?", though someone bravely suggested that historical fiction has a somewhat higher status now than it had a few decades ago. Both writers had interesting things to say about the challenges posed by historical fiction and the differences compared with non-fiction. They commented on the excitement of being allowed to fill in gaps in recorded fact with imaginative reconstruction, the fascination of recreating an entire world in all its detail, and the thrill of inventing something and then later finding out that it was true. These were some of the aspects that drew me to historical fiction as an outlet for my interest in history, instead of doing a history degree as a mature student, so it was good to hear others saying the same thing. Do any of you feel the same?

Also on Radio 4, Word of Mouth announced the results of its simile competition, which invited listeners to send in their favourite similes and invent a new one. This programme is also available on Listen Again, though it may only be there for a week or so. The simile competition starts about 18 minutes in.

One of the highlights was a collection of spectacularly terrible similes allegedly culled from UK school exam results, including:

- he was as tall as a six foot three inch tree
- she had a deep throaty genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up
- he came down the stairs looking very much like something no-one had ever seen before

Great stuff (there are lots more if you listen to the programme), but these are supposed to come from exam papers? Hands up who was ever that creative in any of their school exams? Anyone? No? Word of Mouth didn't believe it either, and a spot of investigative journalism later the source was identified as a competition in the Washington Post in 2001. One wonders why someone bothered to Anglicise the phraseology and then calumniate blameless exam candidates. Thus is an urban myth born.

Oh yes, the competition results. You'll have to listen to the programme for the full list, but here are a few that caught my fancy:

- as jumpy as a flea on E
- as lame as a contrived simile
- teeth like a burglar's tool kit
- as useful as a plough on a wind farm (my favourite)

And the overall winner (drum roll):

- buttocks like two hippopotami sheltering under a fine linen tablecloth.

Surreal or what? And not, to my mind, an especially appealing image. Just imagine getting that in answer to the question, "Does my bum look big in this?"

Do you have a favourite simile?


Bernita said...

Saw one like your winner...describing a large woman in white pants on a bicycle, her buttocks bumping like birthday balloons.
The image stays with one.

Re: the imaginative re-construct, the invention of something and then finding that it was true ( the triumph of logic and common sense.)
Oh yes.And so very sweet it is.
Sounds as if Weir and Goodwin held up the side very well.

Carla said...

Um, yes, an image like that would (shudders). Is that a record for alliteration, by the way? I detect someone who reads Old English poetry.

They did. Open Book is very variable but there's usually something interesting in it somewhere. Word of Mouth is a cup of unmixed delight for anyone interested in the English language, and highly recommended. It's off air now but a new series is starting in July and is well worth listening to over the net.

Gabriele Campbell said...

I think the record in alliteration is kept by Richard Wagner.

Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond,
In mildem Lichte leuchtet der Lenz,
Auf leisen Lüften, leicht und lieblich
Wunderwebend er sich wiegt.


Susan Higginbotham said...
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Susan Higginbotham said...
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Susan Higginbotham said...

Sorry for the comment deletions--I posted a URL that wasn't working. Anyway, I'm saddened to see that the similes were urban myths. I hope these church bulletin bloopers aren't, and that the URL works this time:


Carla said...

Gabriele - I give in. Who could possibly compete with that?

Susan - The similes were real enough, it was only the source that was an urban myth.

Makes me wonder about a similar collection of chemistry howlers, supposedly culled from O-level exam papers, that were doing the rounds when I was at school. Sadly I have lost the list and can only remember two:
'Hydrogen is used for hydro-electric power'
and the surreal
'Another well-known ester is goat sweat which is known to cause havoc among bees'.
I swear I didn't make that last one up, and have been pondering for years on what the writer could possibly have intended to say. I do hope it was real and not a deliberate invention by some wit.

Your link worked in the third comment. They look real enough - our parish magazine turns up with something similar now and then. I especially liked this one, "Don't let worry kill you off - let the church help."
Yes, I've had that sort of day.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Some gems I found on the geneaology section of the Clan Fraser Canada society website.

I was very annoyed that you have branded my son illiterate, as this is a lie. I was married to his father a week before he was born.

Enclosed please find my grandfather. I have worked on him for 40 years without success. Please see what you can do.

Alex Bordessa said...

I caught the programme too. I thought Alison Weir said some interesting stuff about putting in more of her research into the novel than she could in her non-fic books. However, does this mean that she's putting in too much detail at the expense of a ripping yarn? Haven't read her novel, but have heard much about making the mistake of putting *all* of one's research into a novel ...

Carla said...

Gabriele - thanks for a good laugh!

Alex - Good question. I'll have to read her novel and see what it's like. I've read her biography of Elizabeth I and found it quite good but not so brilliant that I wanted to rush out and get the others. I think she meant she could use types of research that she wouldn't normally use in her historical biographies, such as little details of everyday life. Whether that gets in the way depends how it's done, and one person's excess detail is another's rich background, so it probably depends a bit on the beholder.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Dropping in on the run here!
Weir's novel. Huge thumbs up from friends on a reading list so far. I'll probably read from the library when I get round to it. I'm fairly Tudored out at the moment.

Similes. My mind's gone blank, but will probably remember plenty later. One I still remember comes from Clive James describing Dame Barbara Cartland's make up.
'Her eyes resembled the corpses of two small black crows that had crashed into a chalk cliff.'

Carla said...

Elizabeth - great line! I'll be interested to hear what you think of Alison Weir's novel when you read it.